Pilgrim event honors veterans for keeping home safe

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As Pilgrim High School put on its third annual “Patriots for Patriots” event honoring veterans and those currently serving with ties to the school, it was the veterans who reminded Pilgrim students why they serve: to keep everyone back home safe.

The event was held in the auditorium and attended by every member of the classes of 2018 and 2019, along with a few underclassmen. As they filled out the hundreds of seats towards the middle and back, the honorees, their families and the speakers took up the closest seats to the stage.

The pre-Veterans Day observance was spearheaded by Pamela Bernardi, the school’s vice principal, who has been putting the event together for the past three years, along with the help of the National Honor Society, which guided the event along.

The first honorary speaker was Mark Jannitto, a retired Brigadier General in the Air Force who served internationally and also led a team at Ground Zero to provide immediate relief after the 9/11 attacks. He actually served alongside the father of Pilgrim’s principal, Gerry Habershaw, in the Air Force.

“The soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind,” Jannitto said, referencing General Douglas MacArthur’s speech to the 1962 graduates of West Point.

“Who talks like that anymore?” Jannitto asked. “I’ll tell you about one group that we’re here to honor today that hardly ever says these words. Our veterans themselves…even though these words describe the group of men and women who serve our country, you’ll never hear them talk about themselves in those terms. For the most part, they’ll tell you, ‘I just wanted to serve my country.’”

Jannitto spoke to the students of how war has changed since that MacArthur speech, including the psychological toll it has on those who serve and how the current war on terror has become a global war, redefining terms like honor and victory. He said that the vision of those who serve remains the same, however, in protecting the freedoms afforded to people in the United States that aren’t allowed elsewhere, such as protesting the National Anthem itself.

Jannitto said that those who serve thousands of miles away are there to protect the freedoms of people back home, which is where many of them would much rather be.

“Let’s be real, none of us really want to go to war, none of us really want to leave home,” he said. “We’d much rather spend Thanksgiving at home with our families and watch Pilgrim beat Vets.”

The crowd of students made sure to correct him on who their current Thanksgiving football rival is.

After General Jannitto spoke to the students, National Honor Society President and Pilgrim senior Kevin Dusseault took the stage to give a special speech to his own dad, Raymond, who is an Army veteran. He thanked his dad for not only his service but for inspiring him to serve his country, whether it be through ROTC in college or eventually enlisting, even in his dad’s “rival” Navy, which he was sporting a sweatshirt for.

The next speakers, Kristen and Ryan Dwyer, continued talking about the struggles that military families face when members are serving, but how protecting those back home makes it all worth it.

Kristen is an English teacher at Pilgrim and has been with now-husband Ryan since they were sophomores in high school as he served in the military and worked his way up to Captain in the Air Force National Guard. He remains on active duty today.

“I didn’t really know what it meant to serve and to be part of the military until I met Ryan,” Dwyer said.

Ryan, whose technical work in the military focused on aircrafts, said that he always wanted to serve his country, but when 9/11 happened it took his desire to serve to another level.

“From that day, everything changed for us,” Kristen said. “Since 2001 Ryan has been on over a dozen deployments and we spent over four years of time apart…During that time we have started our careers, we got married, we lived in two different homes, we have two kids, we have two dogs and life just kind of moved along. We just kept moving forward and there were good times and hard times.”

“As a military family, you just make it work,” Ryan said. “Through that all, the family has been able to keep in mind the bigger picture, why men and women do what they do. To keep the people who want to harm us away.”

That bigger picture has driven the couple in their journey as a military family and, according to Kristen, will always remind her of something her grandfather, who also served, always told her, “There’s no place like home.”

The final speaker also hailed from Pilgrim’s English department, Brian Callahan, whose father was honored for his service in the Air Force. He referenced his second job at Quinn Funeral Home as putting him in close contact with many veterans, especially those at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital. A member of the Ocean State Poets, Callahan read an original poem, “Ricochet,” about veteran’s hospitals to the crowd of silent students.

“From Chalkstone Avenue, the hospital rises through a grove of dense oaks, behind Davis Park, where children who’ve never shared in war’s siren song don’t see through the trees and across the street, into the waiting rooms where post-traumatic stress meets shell-shock meets a mother’s wicker basket of almond biscotti, the only way she knows how to show her gratitude for her son’s newly designed prosthetic arm,” he read.

Callahan’s poem was in line with the goal of the event, which was to show the members of the armed forces who were present how appreciative Pilgrim is for their service and for keeping their home back in Warwick safe.

All the current and former members of the armed forces in attendance received honorary plaques in front of the crowd. Veterans who were honored included:

Air Force – Robert Callahan, Richard Hainey, Jannitto, Michael Martino and Nelson St. Louis.

Army – Raymond Dusseault and Veronica Stravinsky.

Active duty service members also honored:

Marines – Mitchell Bendokas.

Air National Guard – Ryan Dwyer.

Coast Guard – David Mather.

Army National Guard – Aaron McAllian.

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